HOMILY FOR CHRISM MASS 2019
The Priest and the Programme of Jesus in the Synagogue at Nazareth.
The situation in which we find ourselves in the Church and the world today all combine to make priesthood very challenging. We are expected to be all things to all people, to offer help to those in need, hospitality to the lonely, encouragement to those with difficulties. The challenge reminds us of the speech in the Synagogue at Nazareth in today’s Gospel when Jesus quotes the Prophet Isaiah and sees his ministry in terms of supporting the fallen, healing the sick and releasing those who are bound. Of course we will be subjected to criticism but it is not the critic that counts, nor the person who points out how we stumble. The important thing is that we strive valiantly. Of course we will make mistakes but we try, we fall, we fear, we keep going.
Coping with Challenge.
It would be all too easy to court popularity by being what people want us to be – either liberal to liberals, conservative to conservatives, taking decisions that win temporary acclaim, rather than working from principle and conviction. We pray for the courage to live with unpopularity at times and ask the Lord to give us the ability to keep going despite opposition, false accusations or repeated setbacks. Deep down we realise that God never loses faith in us, even if we sometimes lose faith in ourselves. Of course defeats, delays and disappointments will hurt us. There may be times when we feel discouraged and demoralised and yet it is important to remember that our great High Priest, judged in human terms, was a failure. For us the road to success passes through many valleys of failure.
Learning from our People.
As priests we have to endure living with the fact that many will be critical, some may be malicious, disdainful. Learning from the people whom we serve will be both a grace and a challenge. Working with others in ministry, praying with them will lead to a process of learning, whether at parish or diocesan level. I am reminded of a saying in Jewish literature, which states “I learned much from my teacher, more from my colleagues but most of all from my students”. Today, the priest must think long-term and build for the future. This is something which may be frowned upon in our contemporary culture with its focus on the moment, its short attention spans, its fleeting fashions, its texts and tweets, its fixation with today’s headlines. It will always be a challenge for us to move from a situation where we are proud of the past to one that is focused on the future.
The Priest a Minister of Hope.
Above all as priests we need to be people of hope. And there is a distinction between hope and optimism. Optimism is the belief that things will get better, hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. We have something to learn from prophets like Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. These were all prophets of hope. Even in their darkest moments they were able to see through the clouds of disaster and point to a new future. Another significant aspect which these three prophets had in common was that they delivered their criticism in a spirit of love. Isaiah spoke in the name of God: “though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed. My unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed” (Isaiah 54:10). As agents of hope, we as priests, in a spirit of love, endeavour to widen the horizons of those to whom we minister, to embrace humanity as a whole. This is the kind of leadership that gives people the ability to recover from a crisis and move on.
The Priest as Teacher.
There is one area in our ministry which we probably have under estimated, namely, our role as teachers. This mission has been entrusted to us at the end of Matthew’s gospel by the risen Lord “go make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and low, I am with you always, to the close of the age”. In our Chrism Mass we thank God for the people that we are privileged to serve for the opportunity to work and pray with them, to learn from and be supported by their availability, generosity and their faith in the God who continues to make all things new.
We plant a vision in people’s minds, hope in their hearts, discipline in their actions. In this way we enable them to change their lives and outlook. We will discover that we cannot please everyone. What matters is not that we succeed, but that we are among the people we serve, that we put ourselves on the line, commit ourselves to high ideals, and refuse the easy options of cynicism, disillusion or blaming others. How we interpret the challenge facing religious faith today will determine how we respond to that challenge. It is our response that will shape, not just our own lives, but the lives of those to whom we minister. Within every family, community or organisation there are the inevitable tribulations and trials. These can lead to arguments, to blame and recrimination. On the other hand, they may be seen as providential, as a way to some future good. We are transformed in our ministry and hopefully help to transform others. In the culture in which we minister today we cannot afford to forget the past but we are not held captive by it. We press on to the future which we may not see clearly but in which we hope. While we acknowledge the evil in our world and within ourselves, we do not become obsessed by it and instead we focus on the good that is in our power and the power of others to do. In this way we help to work with others to redeem our world.